Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

Picture Sunday: Images of Detroit

Fox Run by Jill Nienhuis

Fox Run by Jill Nienhuis

Root Simple readers are talented people. This week I discovered that regular reader Jill Nienhuis is not only an urban homesteader, but a talented artist, too. Her paintings and other projects are wonderful – -you can see more at her website : Jill Nienhuis

Jill lives in a neighborhood in NW Detroit called Brightmoor. It’s a neighborhood which has fallen on hard times, but is being revitalized, largely through gardening. She and her boyfriend, Michael, are growing a large garden on several vacant lots, and are looking to buy a house near their garden at auction. Land in Brightmoor is inexpensive. (One of the lots she gardens on cost $210.)  She also says that there’s a 170 acre forest at the edge of her neighborhood, which makes it feel more like the country than the city.

Looking at Google images of the Brightmoor areas, I agree. It does have a country feel. There’s lots of open space, lots of green lushness — along with the blighted houses and other signs of urban decay. You can also see this in her work, of course. It looks like a place waiting to wake up and blossom. It just needs caring hands, and people with vision. And as you can tell by their work, Jill and Michael have plenty of vision.

Thanks for letting us share your work, Jill!

hubbard farms

Hubbard Farms by Jill Nienhuis

Saturday Linkages: DIY Coffee Tables, Ride Shares and Hot to Grill

coffee table made with pallet

Coffee table made with pallet: http://www.recyclart.org/2013/06/coffee-table-made-with-pallet/ …

Sorry Uber, Los Angeles Has Been Banning Ride-Shares For a Century http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/sorry-uber-los-angeles-has-been-banning-ride-shares-fo-574851806 …

Metro threatens Phantom Planter with arrest if he tends his DuPont Circle station flowers http://wapo.st/14pF8Ts

The Three Zone Fire: How to Grill Perfect Meat | The Art of Manliness http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/06/26/summer-grilling-week-the-3-zone-fire-video/ …

Protect power cords from cable-gnawing cats: http://boingboing.net/2013/06/26/protect-power-cords-from-cable.html …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

Climate Change and Personal Responsibility

stop waste poster

Erik and I make it a general policy not to engage in politics on this blog. Homesteading is about local and personal change foremost, after all, and it’s a big enough movement to embrace many beliefs. Also, talking politics brings out the trolls, and that’s no fun for anyone.

But.  I’ve got to bring this up. And I hope you’ll go along with me and not see this as sort of support or condemnation of any political party, nor an invitation to bash specific politicians. It is an observation about American culture as a whole.  This observation spins off of President Obama’s recent speech on climate change, and climate change is bigger than political parties, bigger than nation states.


While I’m happy to see that we are (finally!) speaking about climate change on a national level, I noticed one striking omission from the President’s speech. He did not make any suggestion that individual Americans might want to pitch in and help mitigate this global crisis through changing their personal habits.

This despite the fact that Americans, per capita, have double the carbon footprint of our comparably well-off neighbors in Europe. Despite the fact that, according to the World Watch Institute, “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas.”

All our President asks of us, toward the end, is that we add our voices to political discourse on the subject.

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

Political action is all well and good, but as we’re always saying, change starts at home. We’re all in this together, and it’s important that we, as individuals, acknowledge the cost of our lifestyle and, if it seems appropriate to us after reflection, take action to alter that lifestyle.

Leaving personal responsibility out of the equation has a two-fold effect. First, it makes the issue abstract. It becomes someone else’s problem and someone else’s fault. Then the blame game begins. Second, it makes us feel disempowered: if the problem is all about politics and industry, it’s too big for any one person to tackle. So why try at all? And this leads to a strange brew of free-floating anxiety and denial.

canning poster

Dear readers, you know all of this. You are taking action. I shouldn’t harangue you. I’m just frustrated.

The last time that I can remember any president asking us to do something other than shop ’til we drop was Jimmy Carter, way back in 1977 when I was just a sprout:

We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly. But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive. Utility companies must promote conservation and not consumption. Oil and natural gas companies must be honest with all of us about their reserves and profits. We will find out the difference between real shortages and artificial ones. We will ask private companies to sacrifice, just as private citizens must do.

Oh Jimmy, if we’d only started conserving 40 years ago, think how much better off we’d be today.

Ah well. We should have adopted the metric system back then, too, for that matter. When did we become such pampered children? When did sacrifice become a dirty word?


I’ve heard it said more than once in the climate change community that the only real chance we have of pulling our collective bacon out of the fire, i.e. limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (we’re up 1 degree as of now), will be through an international mobilization effort requiring personal sacrifice the likes of which has not been seen since WWII.

Invariably the commenters go on to say that such action is obviously impossible. Politically unfeasible. Unrealistic. And that means we’re inevitably headed for a far more dangerous–really terribly unthinkable–3 or 4 degree rise.

What I want to know is why the possibility of positive change is so easily and cynically dismissed. What’s more scary?:

 Global Catastrophe which will Curse All Life on the Planet Permanently


Riding the Bus

(or committing to local food or flying less or setting your thermostat low or buying used clothing or whatever equally scary measure you’d like to propose)

It really doesn’t seem like such a hard choice to make.

It may indeed be politically unfeasible. I’ve long stopped looking to the national level for meaningful action or leadership. But we can do a lot on a personal level. We can start a people’s revolution. A Revolution of Reasonableness.

It’s already happening. There’s been so much positive change on this front, even just in the last few years. Urban homesteading, slow food, organics, bikes, car share, DIY, all of it — it’s blossoming. It’s very hopeful.  I’m going to put the next part in italics because it’s so important: The pleasure and satisfaction that we all receive from living this way is the positive counterspell to the dark enchantment of consumer culture.

When we live this way, we become positive examples to others–and though it may not always be obvious, we do influence them. And even if the changes we make in our lifestyle are small, the accumulation of small lifestyle changes by millions of people can have a big impact on both our culture and the environment. Everybody, no matter what their means, can do something to pitch in.


What I’ve been pondering lately is how to take it to the next level, how to up the rate of change. Is it possible to engage the famously lazy, self-centered American consumer in this revolution?

Well, I think it is, because “the American consumer” is another unhelpful abstraction, if not a convenient scapegoat. Who is this selfish creature of legend? I’m an American consumer. As are all my family and neighbors. There is no us and them in this fight. We can all do more.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to mobilize and sacrifice on a World War type scale if you knew it would do real good?

I’ve been looking at WWII propaganda posters from the U.S. and Britain, noting that a lot of what they needed to do, we need to do, too.

Any artists out there want to make a new breed of propaganda posters for this cause? I think that would be a swell thing.

And remember:

ride alone